Pendock discusses the challenge of concealing retrofit heating and plumbing pipework when converting existing properties

It can be beneficial for selfbuilders to renovate, convert or extend existing properties rather than starting from scratch – and the regeneration of abandoned buildings is being encouraged by the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, an independent body advising government. However, changing layouts, updating heating and hot water systems and retrofitting bathrooms and kitchens in existing properties can result in unsightly lengths of exposed pipework. Gavin Byram, national sales manager at Pendock, explains how selfbuilders can address the challenges.

Choosing to create a home by adapting an existing property (whether a former dwelling, or another type of building, such as a school) can offer selfbuilders benefits over starting afresh from an empty plot of land or a demolition. The costs can be lower, and easier to forecast and control, and the duration of the project will usually be shorter1.

Furthermore, the Living with Beauty report2, from the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, says that recycling buildings is normally more sustainable than demolishing them and starting again. For example, constructing a new build two-bedroom house uses the equivalent of 80 tonnes of CO2, whereas refurbishment uses eight. Building adaptation can achieve a smaller environmental impact through fewer vehicle movements, fewer materials going to landfill from demolition and reduced use of new materials (which have embodied energy use)1.

To incentivise the regeneration of existing buildings, the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission has recommended that the government should make bringing derelict buildings back into use VAT free (or charge at most five per cent), and that it should do the same for core improvements to existing buildings, including reroofing, extensions, conversions and renewable heating.

However, renovating, converting or extending existing properties doesn’t come without challenges – big and small. One such challenge is how to best manage retrofit heating and plumbing pipework that will need to be fitted alongside new heating systems and within refurbished bathrooms and kitchens. While managing pipework might seem like a minor issue in comparison to other problems selfbuilders might face (such as structural or planning permission obstacles, for example), it can have a big impact on aesthetics if it’s not properly and carefully considered.

Renovating an existing property is an ideal time to update a heating system, which will improve performance and efficiencies, lower carbon emissions and reduce running costs. It might involve upgrading an old, inefficient boiler, or installing something more eco-friendly (with sustainability often being a priority for selfbuilders), such as an air source heat pump or photovoltaic (PV) panels. The work will undoubtedly include fitting new lengths of pipework, which can easily become long and complicated if internal layouts and the location of heating appliances are altered.

Changes are also likely to be made in bathrooms, kitchens and utility areas; they might be reconfigured to create more space or to make them more useable or accessible (with sanitaryware and appliances being repositioned accordingly) or completely updated (for example by creating a modern wet room). They might even be moved to a completely different part of the property. And, while it makes practical and financial sense to keep original plumbing lines, such changes might be necessary, meaning that pipework will need to be altered or extended.

In new build homes, gas supply pipes and flow and returns for heating systems, hot and cold feeds for taps and showers and soil and wastewater pipes would be fitted within cavity walls, but in retrofit installations, pipework is likely to be fitted along skirting boards, walls and ceilings – which can look unsightly. Despite the trend for exposed copper pipes, the look isn’t for everyone, and it’s unlikely that anyone would want to leave a soil or wastewater pipe on display.

Exposed pipework can also pose a safety hazard; surfaces above 43°C can lead to serious injury, and there are hundreds of hospital admissions in England each year due to unintentional injury by contact with hot heating appliances, radiators and pipes.

Selfbuilders will therefore usually need to decide how they are going to conceal, or ‘box in’ retrofit pipework. Those with carpentry and joinery skills might fabricate their own solutions on site – but cutting wood or MDF to size, fixing it around the pipework and priming and painting it can be time-consuming. And, for those who are less experienced, the results aren’t always neat or consistent.

An alternative is made-to-measure, pre-formed, pre-finished pipe boxing – a simple solution that enables selfbuilders to easily achieve an aesthetically pleasing, uniform finish. Products are simple to fit (taking around half the time as onsite fabrication), with few components required; just batten, the pre-formed profiles, screws, mastic sealant and, if required, external and internal corner pieces (eliminating the need to fabricate mitre joints). There’s minimal cutting involved, and no painting required. If pipework needs to be accessed in the future, pre-formed products can be easily removed and refitted, or they can be supplied with access panels.

The regeneration of existing buildings offers many benefits, and is being encouraged by the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. When derelict buildings are being restored and refurbished, there are straightforward, time-saving solutions available to help mitigate the challenges selfbuilders face – pre-formed pipe boxing being one example.